Of all the accusations being hurled at tobacco companies, none is more damning than the charge that they colluded to squelch development of "safer" cigarettes, fixating on avoiding legal liability rather than customers' welfare.
Cigarette makers have hotly denied the claim. But the line of attack could get a significant boost from new evidence on the demise of a supposedly "safer" smoke that struggling Liggett Group Inc. once viewed as a breakthrough against lung cancer and the salvation of its dying business.
In the first case ever of an industry lawyer cooperating with anti-tobacco plaintiffs, Lawrence G. Meyer, former outside counsel to Liggett, has agreed to testify for the state of Washington at its trial scheduled to start tomorrow.
His testimony is sure to rekindle a 20-year-old mystery concerning the death of the "XA" project, which involved the blending of a catalyst with tobacco to neutralize cancer-causing compounds in the smoke.
Meyer, a 57-year-old Washington, D.C., attorney, also is expected to be debriefed by lawyers for the three dozen other states with pending anti-tobacco suits, and by Justice Department investigators involved in a criminal investigation of Big Tobacco.
Nor is Meyer the only knowledgeable insider who has not been heard from. Another who has not been contacted by the states is J. Bowen Ross Jr., a former Liggett patent lawyer who recently gave the Los Angeles Times copies of his notes from more than 100 meetings on the XA project between 1976 and 1983.
Ross, 60, who said he has had three relatives die of lung cancer from smoking, believes Liggett blew a big opportunity -- and not just because it "would have made a lot of money. I thought if you came out with something that's beneficial, you have an obligation" to bring it to market.
The XA affair created a mild sensation in 1988 when it was first revealed in a New Jersey tobacco case. Amid charges and denials, the story soon faded.
But Washington and other states -- whose lawsuits charge cigarette makers with conspiring not to compete on product safety -- are beginning to dig deeper.
Meyer was a partner in the law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, and an outside lawyer for Liggett from 1974 to 1986. He advised the firm in its dealings with federal agencies, and at times represented Liggett on the Committee of Counsel, where top industry lawyers plotted legal and regulatory strategy.
Meyer also attended some of Liggett's meetings on the XA project.
At one such meeting, Ross said, Meyer made this statement that appears in Ross' notes: "Other tobacco companies will look upon [the XA] as a catastrophic event."
Lawyers for Washington first contacted Meyer in May. His cooperation would have been impossible but for the landmark out-of-court settlement Liggett reached last year with Washington and other states.
Other tobacco companies are seeking to limit the scope of Meyer's testimony.
However, his recollections are outlined in a document filed by his lawyer, Dwight P. Bostwick, earlier this month in state court in Seattle.
The 10-page "proffer" alludes to the pivotal role of Joseph Greer -- former general counsel of Liggett's tobacco division -- in scrubbing the XA.
Greer, a smoker who died of lung cancer in 1985 and was a close friend of Meyer, was under pressure from Liggett defense lawyers, who thought the XA would undermine their defense of smoking, the proffer states.
A tobacco industry lawyer said he could not comment until Meyer testifies.
But cigarette makers have always rejected claims that they ignored health concerns, arguing that they have gradually lowered tar and nicotine yields and invested millions trying to come up with novel new brands.
Pub Date: 9/13/98